The rise of the anti-hero in popular television.
“A handbook for gangsters,” The Prince has influenced those hungry for power ever since Machiavelli penned it in the 16th century. Leaders, he wrote, are expected to operate beyond the constructs of right or wrong, making ruthless decisions with an iron resolve. “It is necessary that a prince who is interested in his survival learn to be other than good,” he explains. Recent television’s most Machiavellian characters prove that viewers have a particular soft spot for an anti-hero with megalomaniacal tendencies.
Frank Underwood from House of Cards is one such misanthropic mastermind. A morally bankrupt politician played by Kevin Spacey, he has charmed his way into the psyche of anyone who’s watched the wildly successful Netflix television series. Intent on seizing the presidency of the United States, he tramples on anyone weaker or kinder in his pursuit of power. With his wife Claire by his side – a bastion of style in tailored neutrals and a chic blonde bob – Frank commits atrocities with a benign smile and a few carefully chosen words in his southern drawl. It’s sink or swim when it comes to the White House, and Frank intends to stay afloat until the end.
And still, we find ourselves rooting for him. Despicable, tyrannical, amoral – yet Underwood’s most lethal weapon is his charisma. In season one, at the funeral of a teenage girl killed in home state of South Carolina, he speak with powerful eloquence on the devastating impact of grief upon faith, referencing a beloved father who died when he was young. Yet this recollection of Frank vulnerable at his own father’s funeral is quickly quashed by his aside to the camera – a mechanism that creates collusion with the viewers – where he declares, “The man never scratched the surface of life. Maybe it’s best he died young.” He has manipulated those around him, he has manipulated us as viewers, and we can’t help but admire him for it.
Walter White, the family man-turned-drug baron in HBO’s Breaking Bad, begins as a typical father and ends as a monster. From high school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin, his insatiable ego transforms him into a villain and combusts the lives of all close to him. Unlike Frank, Walt begins as an Average Joe: he lives modestly, loves his wife and son and gets excited by atoms. In short, he’s a geek, and an endearing one at that. But his diagnosis of terminal cancer changes everything. Faced with mortality, panicked at the thought of his family surviving without his support, he begins cooking meth to earn money. The intentions are noble. Yet the means of achieving them become increasingly dubious until, finally, the viewer has a moment of terrible clarity: Walt has become grotesque. His descent into darkness is so slow, so gradual that we are guided into amorality with him. Only when his redemption becomes impossible do we accept him as a villain.
Popular culture’s recent spate of psychopaths has thrown off the hackneyed stereotypes of yesteryear to assume a veil of respectability. Gone is the palpable aura of menace; these men wear country club clothes and make small talk with the neighbors. We are so seduced by their normality that we make excuses for their evil. Slowly, we become complicit in their crimes – and our realization that we’ve been duped comes too late.